May-June 2009

Cohen In the Wind

By Ross Altman

Between 1965 and 1969 America gave over 100,000 draft dodgers, war resistors and general malcontents to Canada, seeking refuge and sanctuary from the empire. In exchange Canada sent us Neil Young, Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, seeking fame and fortune. I think America got the better of the deal. The first five artists, as identifiably individual as they are, are in some fashion of a piece: They are first and foremost musicians, secondarily singer-songwriters and have all created a catalogue of songs over the past forty years that are recognizably modern in their themes and variously connected to folk, country and rock traditions.

Leonard Cohen, however, is a bird of a different feather who hovers over both Canadian and American songwriting like a strange visitor from another planet, and I don't mean Krypton. To appreciate his connection to this one I suggest contrasting him to Bob Dylan, in the following sense: Dylan raised the level of what could be said in a song from all other songwriters that came before him to something one has to call poetry. There were great songwriters before him, but no one, including the great versifiers like Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart, and the great populist folk singer Woody Guthrie, who could be said to have written songs that qualified as literature. Dylan did, and as I have tried at some pains to show in earlier essays in FolkWorks, this impulse was there from the beginning, even on his first album in his Song to Woody.

Leonard Cohen turned that impulse around, and worked his way backwards from poetry to song. Before Judy Collins had recorded his first recognized classic Suzanne, Leonard Cohen was already anthologized in the Penguin Book of Canadian Poetry. He had also published a novel that was taught inky English classes at UCLA: Beautiful Losers.

In short, he needed Greenwich Village like a hole in the head. Before he was thirty he had already accomplished what some writers work their whole lives to achieve-recognition and acceptance in the Academy and in publishing houses that define what is likely to endure as modern literature.

But here he came, to the Chelsea Hotel, as all Cohen fans know, to receive an erotic benediction from the female voice of a century in rock music, soon to join the ranks of the legendary dead-at-twenty-seven musical icons that included Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Kurt Cobain, and the blues singer who sold his soul to the devil and paid for it with his life, Robert Johnson. Janis Joplin was the only woman who made the list-all of them dead from a heroin addiction, the musician's curse.

Leonard Cohen helped to immortalize her by later indiscreetly outing her as the subject of his most erotic song, Chelsea Hotel #2. (This is a family website, so you may go to Leonard Cohen's own web site for the lyrics, www.leonardcohen.com).

So if Dylan demonstrated that songwriting could aspire to the realm of poetry, where his lyrics are now routinely included in modern anthologies of verse, Cohen realized that poetry could be elevated too-off the page and into people's ears as well their eyes and minds. In short, if Dylan transformed song into poetry; Cohen transformed poetry into song. In so doing, they both redrew the map of contemporary song.

The wonder of Cohen's body of work is that he has continued to challenge himself and grow into a kind of philosopher-poet using songs to go where few songwriters have ventured to explore-an attitude that almost no other rock or folk songwriters have articulated as consistently-true pessimism, in terms of accepting the limits of what art can accomplish, much as one of the 20th century's great poets W.H. Auden did when he sadly proclaimed, "Poetry makes nothing happen; it survives in the valley of its saying," and yet that does not negate poetry, it simply frames the conditions of its existence. To put it in philosophic terms one must turn to the great existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, in his play, No Exit. We are all trapped, only some of us don't know it. Sartre knows it; Auden knows it; and, to his extraordinary credit, so does Leonard Cohen.

To fully appreciate how far removed Cohen's sensibility is from his musical contemporaries, as opposed to his literary and philosophical contemporaries, just think for a moment of what Pete Seeger would think of as an "anthem:" We Shall Overcome. Pete, Woody, and before them, Joe Hill and Paul Robeson (all individual subjects of my previous FolkWorks essays), they all believed passionately that a song could change the world.

Imagine John Lennon's Imagine without that belief; or Woody's This Land Is Your Land-that is the foundation belief of virtually every modern folk and rock songwriter. Imagine Bono and U2, or Bruce Springsteen, or Neil Young, or every song that SingOut! has ever published without it, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame starts to look pretty thin, and the Archives of American Folk Music could be housed in a trunk.

Now look at Leonard Cohen's idea of an anthem, called simply, Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything

That's where the light gets in.

You won't here Pete Seeger singing it; it carries no promise of a better world if we only work at it, no hopeful message that tomorrow will be better than today-indeed in a song called The Future, unlike Martin Luther King, who carried a folk singer’s dream with him when he proclaimed that "I've been to the mountaintop, and I’ve looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land; I may not get there with you, but want you to know that we as a people will get to the Promised Land," Leonard Cohen’s vision of the future is as dark as night: "I've seen it, and it’s murder."

You might say that the one thing King did not see, was the first thing on Cohen’s list: the assassination that was just hours away.

The world of Leonard Cohen offers no easy way out, no communal sermons that we can fundamentally change our lot if we practice what Joe Hill preached: Don't mourn; organize. For Cohen, organizing won't get us there; marching won't get us there; and singing certainly won't get us there. And yet, despite various perceptions of his work that he writes songs to commit suicide to, his is not a counsel of despair. The essence of his world view, and his clear and vibrant source of hope, is in the last line of his Anthem: “That’s where the light gets in." He celebrates the imperfect world, in love and politics and even war and peace (see his brilliant Song of Isaac, to see the best modern retelling of this Biblical story that has inspired a number of classic antiwar poems): He can't bring Janis Joplin back, but he can do the next best thing, and that is to "remember her well." He can't convince himself that the world is perfectible, but he can do the next best thing, and that is to sing and celebrate the one we have; and he can't make a song that will inspire millions to march on Washington, but he can do the next best thing, and that is to indict "the killers in high places."

Nor, even though he has been selling out arenas for two and three night stands all over the country on his current World Tour 2009,convince himself that he ranks very high in The Tower of Song: "I asked Hank Williams, How lonesome does it get? Hank Williams hasn't answered yet; but I hear him coughing all night long-one hundred floors above me in the tower of song."

Cohen came to the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles this past weekend and delivered what has already been described (in Ben Weiner’s outstanding review for The Orange County Register, available on-line) as an "epic performance," three hours and twenty-eight songs, three more songs than are included in his new release from the performance that kicked off the tour: Leonard Cohen: Live in London.

I bought tickets to go to the concert, and fully intended to go, and to write a review instead of this more personal essay, but when I got down there and came to the box office I saw somebody who changed my plans for the night-the woman who had been my late mother's pharmacist for the entire six years I took care of her, until she passed away last July 7, in my arms at the Santa Monica Hospital. The pharmacist's name was Helen, and she made my job of being a caregiver bearable and intelligible by helping me understand and acquire Mom's many different medication's year in and year out, month in and month out, week in and week out, and day in and day out.

If she couldn't fill a prescription, she never let me go home empty-handed; she always loaned me enough to cover the gap until they got a new shipment. If Mom had an untoward reaction, Helen gave me the information to know what was going on, and what alternatives there might be; and she never failed to ask me how my music was going, reminding me even when my life was consumed with care-giving that I had another life that meant something to her.

For six years Helen was my rock, and yet when Mom died in her 92nd year (see my previous FolkWorks essay Try To Remember for my account of her descent into Alzheimer's) I couldn't bring myself to go and see her; it was just too painful to walk up to her counter and tell her there was nothing more she could do. I told her co-workers so she knew of Mom's death, but foursome reason I had to leave it at that.

And then I saw her and her husband at the box office trying to get some last minute tickets to see Leonard Cohen, without much luck. Touched her arm and said, "Helen, is that you?" As soon as she looked into my eyes she grabbed me and I got the hug of my life.

And then I handed my small envelope with the two concert tickets to her and her husband and said, "Merry Christmas, or Happy Birthday, whichever comes first." I also told her husband that he had a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful wife; and he nodded and said, "I know."

So I hope Helen and Terry had as good a time watching Leonard Cohen's epic concert as I would have had. As hard as it was to miss, and as much as I treasure his music and his stance as an artist, I am confident that what happened was a true "Leonard Cohen moment." For what he has sacrificed in his refusal to succumb to false promises, false prophets and the Woodstock generation's belief in communal transformation, he has joyously supplanted with an appreciative eye on small gestures and quiet individual human connections that sustain us through many unavoidable dark valleys.

Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  

All Columns by Ross Altman